Eight Fundamental Steps to being a Professional Writer

 A Guest Post by Art Holcomb

Writers and Athletes and Actors all share very similar career arcs.

Many start out but few make it to become practicing professionals.

No matter what their path, they all have to master the fundamentals.

Practitioners of all three of these professions are rightly considered artists – people striving toward a dream of what they could become. I recently thought about what these three groups all had in common and what their efforts could teach my students.

Below are eight fundamental career steps inspired by the lives of actors, athletes and writers. Most professional writers I know used these tools to get where they are today:

1. Lose the “I’m just a beginner” syndrome: Everyone who is now good at something once sucked at it – it’s just a fact of life. But there is beauty and inspiration in the efforts of the beginner. Some of my favorite work occurred when I was just starting out and didn’t know all the rules that sometimes hold a writer down.

There is a beauty in the beginning of all things – so ignore the labels and just write. That’s the one goal of the beginning (and really ALL) writers – “get it out of your head and on to the page”. Embrace each phase of your career and do your art like there’s nobody watching.

2. Don’t wait for perfect: Each type of artist has a skill arc. That’s natural, too. Many of us have written endless drafts trying to find the perfect phrase or description that will forge that all-important Writer-Reader Connection.

The secret here is to realize that the audience wants your best completed effort, with the emphasis on COMPLETED. They can’t buy it and read it until it done and out there. Remember: “Perfect is the enemy of done” in all things.

3. Talk to yourself — out loud: I have known actors and athletes in their private moments and we share one habit – they tend to visualize and talk through their efforts to themselves. For writers, the key is learning to read our works out loud. The beauty of language exists as much in its sound as in its imagery.

Readers tend to abandon any piece of writing that sounds like writing – and that’s anything that doesn’t sound natural. Reading your work aloud can do that for you too. You will edit better and make a stronger connection to your audience once you hear the words alive and out in the world.

4. Be free to move words, sentences, paragraphs around the page like pieces of a puzzle. As writers, we are often too precious with our words. We think that the way they come out of us is the way they were meant to be heard. But part of our talent – the talent of ANY artist, really – lies in the way our creations are organized.

Play with your work. Stir it, fold it, flip it, rip it – do whatever works for you. You’ll be surprised what happens when you treat your words like clay rather than marble.

5. Make your point in a few words: Novels seem to get longer and longer all the time and I think that’s due in part to over-explaining, endlessly describing and needless illustrating, which all stems from the writer’s insecurity about his/her own ability to communicate.

I have spent most of my career working in the short forms (poetry, short stories, plays and screenplays) and it has taught me to give the reader the tools they need to paint THEIR OWN mental picture of your story using THEIR imagination – instead of you battling to get them to see exactly what you see exactly the way you see it.

Let the audience do some of the heavy lifting and, I guarantee, they’ll thank you for it by eagerly looking for your next work.

6. The Internet is not your friend: Like all tools, the internet is either a blessing or a curse depending on how you use it. For me, it can be a monstrous time suck and I purposely avoid my internet during my writing sessions, except when I am doing research. I also only check my email twice a day. Only twice, and NEVER during writing hours. If you can curb this monster, you’ll be amazed at what you can get done.

Artists tend to eliminate anything that steals time and energy from their passion. You should too.

7. Don’t get stalled by thinking that you have to start at the beginning. The key to getting your pages done is to write it down as it comes to you and not to force yourself to write the beginning first. The ability to set-up and pay-off plot points often depends on writing sections of your story out of order.

Write whatever makes sense to you at the time. You can rearrange it to your heart’s content later. Remember: it’s your work. Own the process.

8. Set deadlines for yourself: This may be the most important tool of all. In my world, nothing ever gets accomplished without a deadline. It puts pressure on me to produce and insures that I get a number of things written instead of just one “masterpiece”. I have learned to write no more than three (3) drafts of any work. After three, it goes out regardless.

Without deadlines, you could be like a friend of mine who has been writing the same novel for more than twenty years. Work to understand your talent and your process. Set a deadline to get the thing out and MEET IT, and then move on to the next work. This is how you create a body or work – and a career.

Art Holcomb is a writer and instructor. His most recent play is entitled THE PERFECT BRACKET and is a contributing editor to CREATIVE SCREENWRITING Magazine.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

12 Responses to Eight Fundamental Steps to being a Professional Writer

  1. Pingback: Eight Fundamental Steps to being a Professional Writer – Storyfix.com | TOTEM, the new series

  2. Great post, Art!

    I am especially a fan of # 7 and #4. In fact, yesterday I sat down with my beat sheet and revised it because I’ve been writing my scenes out of order and other scenes are growing organically from it. So I took a step back, figured out where these new scenes should be in the story structure and revised.

    Has my initial story changed? Yup. But I actually think it’s gotten better and I’m much further along than if I had to slog through things in linear order.

    I’m with you all the way!


  3. Art, you could not be more right when you wrote, “The Internet is not your friend:” It is my biggest time suck. I know it’s a necessary evil, but I’m really growing to resent it. Glad to know I’m not alone in this.
    Great tips. Thank you. Mindy

  4. When I hurt myself lifting yet another 1200-page scifi historical romance epic, I never really look forward to diving in. It’s work, reading that much.

    My mysteries come in at about 60,000 words, and then they’re done. I might like writing 100,000-word stories, but I don’t have any at the moment.

  5. Robert Jones

    Great advice, Art, as always!

    I was recently reading somewhere how checking email and Internet is gobbling up tons of time for most business/work efforts. Be it a creative endeavor, or attempting to get anything accomplished, the Internet can truly be an enemy to progress. Whether it seems like an exciting distraction, or has just become a habit, it shifts your brain away from whatever task is at hand, then it actually takes even more time to re-focus your mind back to whatever work you’re doing. It can wear you out and make you feel lie you’re just not settling into the creative groove. Because most of the time you can’t. The myth about multi-tasking is that the human brain really can only do one thing at 100%, two things at 50%, and so on. Sometimes you’ll have days when you accomplish a great deal and pat yourself on the back for being a good multi-tasker, but does it really work for most people on a regular basis? And if you’re in the process of learning something, say, the craft of writing, forget it. You’re only extending the learning curve by whatever degree you’re breaking up your chief focus. Think about that next time you come up for air and decide to check the Internet.

    Joel–1200 pages should be against the law…LOL! I enjoy a good epic length tale now and then, but read fewer of them these days without hearing some darn good word of mouth. I’ve closed the covers on too many wondering why I spent the time reading one big book with a lousy pay-off when I could’ve read 3 or 4 novels during that time.

    A few years ago, a novelist told me that anything over 80,000 words was considered a novel and I shouldn’t worry about length too much. That being said, I’m a natural adder-to when it comes to my own stories. But a large novel for me might be 400 to 600 pages…and even there I would really scrutinize and edit before the final draft to chop it down further. 1200 pages better be darn good before it gets off the ground in my world.

    I feel for you 🙂

  6. MikeR

    Great post, Art!

    One thing I’d add to this is: “never throw anything away.” If you rewrite something, carefully keep all the copies: before, and after. If it’s the product of your creativity, it’s worth keeping. Forever. (The “Read Only” attribute of a computer-file is a very useful tool to use.)

    If you’re just whacking words onto the page trying to come up with something and it’s just not right … hit the RETURN key a few times and try again. Not sure what word to use, what description? Bang-bang-bang that RETURN key and capture them all. Keep moving.

    Later on, you can mark “that precious file” read-only(!) and then open a new copy and start copy-and-pasting the better bits, working toward that “first rough-edit” and the second and the fifteenth. Whatever it takes.

    But: disavow yourself of these three fond, but VERY bad notions:

    (a) That good writing happens the first time. It doesn’t. Bear in mind that when you read any novel, you’re only seeing the “final final draft.”

    (b) That there’s only one “right-answer,” and that said answer is a foregone conclusion, and that you’ll recognize it when you first see it. No: “you’re making all this stuff up, remember?” In fact, you might find yourself looking at two different versions of something, and think that both of them are great, and lo and behold they ARE. (Hey, being a Story-God has its ups and downs …)

    (c) That if you don’t write it down (or voice-record it) RIGHT NOW, you’ll remember it ten minutes from now. (I was going to add something here, but I forgot what it was.)

  7. Eva

    #2 really hit home. Thanks for this timely post.

  8. Robert Jones

    Hey Mike–Good to see you posting!

  9. Daniel

    Art, thanks for a very timely article. The first one sunk home big time. It is one of my biggest obstacles to just getting on with it and saying, “I am a writer, that’s what I do,” rather than think of it as a hobby like golf or gardening.

    MikeR, the very bad notion (c) is indeed an extremely bad notion. I lose so much to the mistaken belief that a phrase or idea is so amazing I will have no problem remembering it an any given time into the future.

    Good to get back to story fix as I knuckle down to getting things completed.

    Love this site.

  10. MikeR

    (No, Robert, “the rumors of my death, etc …”)

    The bottom line, really, for ANY sort of “creativity” at all, is that: “it isn’t deterministic.”

    When you set out to “create” anything, you are by definition embarking upon a course whose eventual outcome is … unknown, and “150% risky.” However, the fundamental nature of those risks are well-understood by everyone who (successfully) makes a living at it. Even if you are not (as I am not …) “yet counted among their august numbers,” you most-certainly can learn from their experiences.

    You can bring to the world of fiction a fabulous story that no one has ever yet seen before … please do!! … and still do so “efficiently.”

  11. Pingback: Weekend Edition – Fear of Self-Indulgence Plus Writing Tips and Good Reads | Live to Write - Write to Live

  12. Kerry Boytzun


    Regarding “multi-tasking”, I agree with you and would like you all to consider what is focus? Can we watch and analyze at the same time? If yes, can we analyze multiple contexts at once, say the big picture meaning, plot, concept, character arc, story arc, and believeable relevance?

    I made that up: believeable relevance, but am getting very tired of the Hollywood stupid writing out there regarding a series in which the characters become “stupid” in order to move the story along, either by having the downfall of the characters, or the protagonist catching the bad guy.

    For example, in Sons of Anarchy, you have a gloried family that gets along enough to do business and have some kind of quality of life. But after a couple of seasons, it’s clear that everybody is melting down like they are going insane and are doing stupid things that either get themselves killed or have the authorities come down on them. **If the family was this stupid–they would NOT have gotten to the part they were at in season ONE! In real life, you get wiser with experience. In Hollywood series you get dummber with experience. I ain’t buying it–that’s just LAZY writing.

    Another example is Ray Donavan. Ray didn’t get where he was (successful Hollywood Fixer that knows how to keep things QUIET) doing stupid things and allowing witnesses to talk that would destory his family. Yet after season two I am supposed to believe that Ray will sacrifice everything to let a witness live and write all about their bad deeds. Sure. That makes total sense. A Hollywood fixer is going to let everything unravel and his own family be destroyed–because of…I just don’t see an reason. Nope, ain’t buying it. Lazy writing.

    In other words fiction should be believable, yet people tell me, “Kerry, it’s a story, not real life!” Excuse me? You see this in real life? Mobster decides to implode and have not one sane value? That’s professional suicide.

    Wanna commit suicide, figurative, professional, or physical? Fine, but only the insane have nobody or nothing they care about. Even psychopahtic type A business driven people protect their treasure or whatever it is they figure is worth doing it all for. And who the heck wants to watch a successful person meltdown and lose it all? That’s the story arc and character arc? Where we’re going to start at the top and fall to the bottom? YAY! That’s brilliant. Gee that’s exactly what The Shawshank Redemption is about: a guy who loses it all and dies in prison. Yeah–that’s why that movie is number ONE on IMDB! NOT!

    So is it lazy writing, or these writers don’t take the time to connect everything–which is being lazy? Or has the deadline made it impossible to write properly anymore, or are these writers just apathetic? Or maybe they don’t know what they’re doing? I have questions, and I’m not seeing The God Father anymore. Big Bang Theory is in what, seven seasons and the lead character is still the same jerk that in real life you’d throw off the balcony? Can’t anyone advance characters to something interesting instead of the typical meltdown??

    People tell me this is no big deal. And wonder next why their novel isn’t selling.

    Cause it’s, I dunno…not fitting together?

    Harry Potter: it fit together, was brilliant. Sold a zillion. Read that last sentence again. Did Harry melt down, get stupid and burn his friends alive? What is happening to us where the “melt-down” is the new Hollywood story, with Zombieland being normal. Are they trying to conditon our brains that our future has no hope (read the context…)? Do you notice that the hero being heroic is gone? Dark, dark and dark?

    Something is going on here. Watch the old TV Land shows and what passes for a show today. It’s all dark and implodes. Mr. Rogers today would go on a shooting spree. Is this deliberate, or have the writers lost their ability to make sense anymore? Is heroism dead? Even Stallone says as much. He does his Expendables series in jest to the lack of the heroic movies. Today’s herosim has been replaced by technology (Iron Man). You don’t need brains, you just need better technology. What is the context there? Simple: it’s more “Post-Humanism” where this is life AFTER the human is gone, whereby the human IS-WAS the hero, and has been replaced by technology: a smart phone to Google, and anything lethal to wipe out your fellow consumers.

    Sad and scary! Am I the only one that sees this? Or should we stay busy with our distractions (NFL, NBA, College Sports, Sex in the City Fluff–shopping for more junk).

    **Finally, I really wish the other 90% of you reading Larry’s ezine would step up and write a comment that’s informative. My gawd, but it’s always the same old gang, Robert, Mike, that go into detail. Me on a rant to compell you all to actually say something… It’s not fair to Larry to bust his a$$ on this blog-ezine and most of you can only say, “Atta boy, keep it coming”. Share some thoughts that we all can learn from, from your own experience or deconstruction of someone else’s work? I see more intereaction on forums about fixing cars, and troubleshooting Cisco network problems. I tell ya, Larry won’t do this stuff forever. At some point it won’t be worth it anymore. Bloggers want intelligent and useful comments. Stage actors live for the audience participation. What is YOUR participation? Cause from most of you–it’s just not happening. What happened to conversation? Share your thoughts and use more than 144 characters! Twitter SUCKS…

    Life is SHORT. Participate Fully.